Vatican cardinal visits Syria in 10th year of civil war

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, poses inside St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 10, 2019. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, in St. Peter’s Square, Oct. 10, 2019. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

A Vatican cardinal is visiting Syria during the 10th year of the civil war that has devastated the country and led many Christians to flee.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, will travel to Syria from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3, after the trip was postponed from April 2020.

According to a press release from the Congregation, the visit is taking place “in the desire to bring the closeness and solidarity of Pope Francis to the Catholic communities of Syria, tried by years of war and in need of a moment of discernment and pastoral examination.”

Sandri will spend a full eight days in the Middle Eastern country, with stops in Damascus, Tartous, Homs, Yabroud, Maaloula, and Aleppo.

His first meeting will be the Assembly of the Catholic Hierarchy in Syria, where he will also concelebrate a Divine Liturgy with Patriarch Youssef Absi, the leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

Other items on Sandri’s agenda in Damascus include meetings with priests, and visits to Catholic charities, hospitals, and an orphanage.

He will meet with diplomats and the male and female religious of Damascus and southern Syria at the Memorial of St. Paul.

The memorial is believed to mark the spot of St. Paul’s conversion, when he fell from his horse on the road to Damascus.

In Aleppo, Sandri will take part in an ecumenical prayer service and an inter-religious meeting.

Around 87% of Syrians are Muslim, with the Christian population estimated to be 10%, according to the CIA World Factbook, though that figure does not take into account the large number of Christians who fled the country during the ongoing war.

Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, and had the highest percentage of Christians, before the civil war, when there were an estimated 180,000 Christians. According to 2019 figures, that number fell to around 32,000.

The largest Catholic community in Syria is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. There are also Latin, Assyrian, and Chaldean Catholics.

Other Christian communities include the Armenian, Syriac, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Congregation for Eastern Churches links the pope with the many different Eastern communities within the Catholic Church.

According to the congregation’s website, it communicates with the churches “for the sake of assisting their development, protecting their rights, and also maintaining the various Eastern Christian traditions whole and entire in the one Catholic Church, alongside the liturgical, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Latin Rite.”

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